Jared Kushner has spent eight months as his father-in-law’s point person in the Middle East, relying primarily on one envoy, former Trump Organization lawyer Jason Greenblatt, to do the diplomatic heavy lifting in the region.
But just over a month ago, national security adviser H.R. McMaster held a meeting in his West Wing office with Greenblatt to discuss some changes to how the administration would conduct its Israel strategy going forward — including more input from the National Security Council.
In the meeting — also attended by National Security Council officials Ricky Waddell, Michael Anton and Victoria Coates — the group discussed moving Coates, a former policy adviser to Sen. Ted Cruz, to work full-time under Greenblatt.
Greenblatt and David Friedman, the U.S. ambassador to Israel, had already pitched the idea privately to Coates. By bringing on Coates, Greenblatt would get a senior point of contact on the NSC who would be fully devoted to his project. McMaster, too, was pleased with the arrangement: It helped integrate what Greenblatt and Kushner had been doing with his NSC desk.
The group saw it as a win-win-win, and the move was quickly finalized. Coates, an art historian and a longtime Republican foreign policy adviser, was promoted to senior director of international negotiations and moved offices to sit with Greenblatt’s team in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, across the street from the White House.
The move, White House officials and outside advisers said, underscored the administration’s commitment to brokering a Middle East peace deal, even amid recent setbacks in the region. And it showed the unorthodox administration giving a bigger partnership role in the region to the NSC — the traditional forum where foreign policy decisions are brokered.
“Renewed U.S. engagement with our Middle East allies is welcome and badly needed,” said Josh Block, president and CEO of The Israel Project, a nonpartisan educational organization. “The task requires someone in the White House who can manage the many diverse levels of the bilateral relationship, and the decision to move Victoria Coates to the center of the portfolio is a signal that these issues will get the attention and seriousness they need.”
Kushner, along with Greenblatt and deputy national security adviser Dina Powell, left Washington on Sunday night for a trip to the region, including meetings with leaders from the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Qatar and Saudi Arabia before their expected arrival in Israel on Wednesday night. Coates remained home, offering support to the traveling team and managing the information flow.
But even with President Donald Trump’s administration devoting more foreign policy firepower to the region, Middle East experts said they harbored low expectations for what deliverable the latest trip might yield — or what the Trump administration will be able to accomplish in the long run.
Last month’s crisis at the Temple Mount, where two Israeli police officers were shot by Arab Israeli citizens at the holy site in Jerusalem, was seen as a major setback to any peace deal, especially to U.S. efforts to get the Israelis working more closely with the Palestinians. In reaction to the Israeli government’s decision to install metal detectors at the holy site following the shooting, Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, froze contacts with Israel.
Israel finally agreed to remove the metal detectors after a series of high-level discussions and a trip by Greenblatt to the region, just as violent protests erupted and the situation was escalating. Coates joined the American team just as the crisis was erupting, and helped to provide grounding, perspective and some history with the players involved, people involved in the process said.
In an interview, Coates gave most of the credit to Greenblatt for the successful de-escalation. “He gets criticized all the time for not being a career diplomat,” she said. “I don’t know if a career diplomat could have handled that situation as ably as he did. We are no longer in a crisis mode.”
Coates is a spirited choice to work with Kushner and Greenblatt, two Trump loyalists who are new to politics and foreign policy. Former colleagues described her as whip-smart but high-intensity and sometimes territorial, noting that she threatened to resign from Cruz’s 2016 presidential campaign if she was excluded from an early debate prep session.
During the campaign, a former Cruz operative said, she was also livid when the Texas Republican endorsed Trump and cited national security as one of his reasons for supporting the Republican nominee. She was furious, people familiar with the incident said, that her boss made a statement on national security without consulting her first.
In her new role, she is just as eager to be a main player in the room. “These issues have always been a passion of mine, something I worked on very closely” with both former Gov. Rick Perry and Cruz, she said. “Low expectations do not make me unhappy.”
There are, however, new holdups on both sides. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is embroiled in a burgeoning corruption investigation at home, which includes charges of bribery and fraud.
“His rallying the base shows he feels the need to shore up his support,” said Dennis Ross, who served as the Middle East envoy under President Bill Clinton. “That does make him more dependent on the right wing at this point. And that will make any possible concessions to the Palestinians very difficult, unless the administration can produce meaningful public Arab outreach toward Israel.”
The key to that, Ross said, is moving Gulf Arab leaders to play a role on the issue, essentially giving Abbas cover from the Arab world to make concessions to Israel. The latest American trip to the region reflected that agenda, with stops first in the Gulf states before Kushner’s arrival in Israel.
Kushner will also be arriving in the region amid high tensions with the Palestinians, who have expressed frustrations with Greenblatt and seem to be losing hope in the ongoing meetings.
“I have met with Trump envoys about 20 times since the beginning of his term as president of the United States,” Abbas said in a meeting with the left-wing Meretz Party in Israel, according to a report in Haaretz. “Every time they repeatedly stressed to me how much they believe and are committed to a two-state solution and a halt to construction in the settlements. I have pleaded with them to say the same thing to Netanyahu, but they refrained.”
Abbas added: “I can’t understand how they are conducting themselves with us,” according to Haaretz. “Inside [Trump’s] country, there is chaos in the administration.”
The purpose of Kushner’s trip, according to a White House official, is to “focus on the path to substantive Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, combating extremism, the situation in Gaza, including how to ease the humanitarian crisis there,” as well as to explore economic steps that could be taken leading up to any potential peace deal.
The trip marks Kushner’s third trip to the region. He accompanied Trump to Jerusalem during the president’s first foreign trip in May, and then he traveled to Israel for a 24-hour visit with Greenblatt in June.
Even if there appears to be no obvious partner for peace in the region at the moment, Trump does not seem ready to table his peace plans. And until then, the growing American team will continue its diplomatic treks to the Middle East.
The president “believes that the restoration of calm and the stabilized situation in Jerusalem after the recent crisis on the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif has created an opportunity to continue discussions and the pursuit of peace,” a White House official added.
While we’ve carefully documented the dynamics in play behind Trump’s decision to end the CIA’s covert Syria program, as well as the corresponding fury this immediately unleashed among the usual hawkish DC policy wonks, new information on what specifically impacted the president’s thinking has emerged.
Thomas Joscelyn, a Middle East analyst for the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, explains in the August edition of The Weekly Standard:
Earlier this year, President Donald Trump was shown a disturbing video of Syrian rebels beheading a child near the city of Aleppo. It had caused a minor stir in the press as the fighters belonged to the Nour al-Din al-Zenki Movement, a group that had been supported by the CIA as part of its rebel aid program.
The footage is haunting. Five bearded men smirk as they surround a boy in the back of a pickup truck. One of them holds the boy’s head with a tight grip on his hair while another mockingly slaps his face. Then, one of them uses a knife to saw the child’s head off and holds it up in the air like a trophy. It is a scene reminiscent of the Islamic State’s snuff videos, except this wasn’t the work of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s men. The murderers were supposed to be the good guys: our allies.
Trump pressed his most senior intelligence advisers, asking the basic question of how the CIA could have a relationship with a group that beheads a child and then uploads the video to the internet. He wasn’t satisfied with any of the responses:
Trump wanted to know why the United States had backed Zenki if its members are extremists. The issue was discussed at length with senior intelligence officials, and no good answers were forthcoming, according to people familiar with the conversations. After learning more worrisome details about the CIA’s ghost war in Syria—including that U.S.-backed rebels had often fought alongside extremists, among them al Qaeda’s arm in the country—the president decided to end the program altogether.
At the time the beheading video surfaced (July 2016), many in the American public naturally wanted answers, but the story never really picked up much momentum in the media. As Joscelyn describes, it caused nothing more than “a minor stir in the press.” The State Department seemed merely satisfied that the group responsible, Harakat Nour al-Din al-Zenki, claimed to have arrested the men that committed the gruesome crime, though nothing more was known. Absurdly, a US government spokesperson expressed hope that the child-beheading group would “comply with obligations under the law of armed conflict.”
The only press agencies that publicly and consistently challenged the State Department at the time were RT News and the Associated Press, yet even these attempts didn’t get picked up beyond the confines of the State Department’s daily briefing. When the AP’s Matt Lee initially questioned spokesman Mark Toner as to whether Zenki would continue to receive any level of US assistance, Toner casually replied “it would give us pause” – which left Lee taken aback.
Meanwhile, it wasn’t just the US government which had aided Zenki, but as fighting in Aleppo raged it became a favored group among both the mainstream media and prominent think tank pundits. One of the UK’s major broadcasters (Channel 4) even went so far as to attempt to delete and hide its prior online content which sought to normalize the beheaders as “moderate” and heroic once news of the video got out.
Controversial, but @AbuJamajem is largely right:
In Syrian Proxy War, America Can Keep Its Hands Clean or It Can Get Things Done
Last month, video of a Syrian rebel apparently beheading a child captive stunned the world. In the amateur cell phone footage, a fighter from Aleppo factio
Among think tankers, Zenki’s most prominent public supporter, frequently presenting the terror group as actually representative of Syria’s “secular” and supposedly democracy-promoting armed opposition (even after the beheading video emerged), was Charles Lister. Lister was finally confronted not by mainstream media, but by AlterNet’s Max Blumenthal at a DC event held by the (largely Gulf funded) Atlantic Council.
Only by the time of this January 2017 public forum, and after being persistently questioned, did Lister awkwardly back off his previous enthusiastic promotion of Zenki:
We can imagine that Trump saw other things beyond the shocking Zenki beheading video which made him fully realize the utter criminality of the CIA program (Thomas Joscelyn further emphasizes that Trump came to understand the full scope of CIA cooperation with al-Qaeda in Syria).
The only question that remains is who in the CIA or Obama-era State Department should be prosecuted first?